Sierra Daily: January 2011
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23 posts from January 2011

Jan 18, 2011

Adios, Sr. Ross

SierSierra JOHN-198-2102                                                                  Sierra lost one of its most fearless and colorful contributors yesterday when John Ross died of liver cancer in his beloved Michoacan, Mexico. An "investigative poet" and indefatigable journalist, Ross contributed to the magazine in the 1990s with tales of the social and environmental cost to Mexico and Mexicans of a changing international order: NAFTA's  opening of the country to U.S. timber giants, the threat posed by genetic engineering to the humble tortilla, and the environmental heroes who stood up for Mexico's disappearing forests. He was also a character of the first order. Here his old friend Frank Bardacke lays out the "bare bones" of his remarkable biography:

Born to show business Communists in New York City in 1938, he had minded Billie Holliday’s dog, sold dope to Dizzy Gillespie, and vigiled at the hour of the Rosenberg execution, all before he was sixteen years old. An aspiring beat poet, driven by D.H. Lawrence’s images of Mexico, he arrived at the Tarascan highlands of Michoacan at the age of twenty, returning to the U.S. six years later in 1964, there to be thrown in the Federal Penitentiary at San Pedro, for refusing induction into the army.

John took the radical admonition to "speak truth to power" quite literally. He suffered serious beatings--from police, bodyguards of the rich and powerful, Israeli settlers--with sadly predictable regularity, leaving him with a bad back and not very many teeth. Bardacke recounts an incident where Ross was beaten by the bodyguards of Mexico's "poet-potentate" Octavio Paz in the Mexico City airport; I thought it was by the bodyguards of former president Lopez Portillo in Morelia, but it could very well have been both. For Ross, speaking out against injustice was instinctual, no matter what the personal cost. Adios, amigo.

--Paul Rauber 

Photo by Joe Bloom.

Don't Drive Hungry

Sometimes-Sierra contributor Doug Fine, as some will know, has taken up a life of child- and goat-wrangling on his Funky Butte ranch in rural New Mexico. Even though this does require him to drive a ROAT (ridiculously oversized American truck), he does so with the clean conscience that comes of 100% veggie-power. There's only one small drawback. . .


--Paul Rauber

Jan 14, 2011

Alas, Poor Blobby


The resemblance of the homely blobfish (Psychrolutes marcidus) to the cartoon character Ziggy is due to its gelatinous body structure, which allows this variety of fatheaded sculpin to survive half a mile beneath the waves off southeastern Australia. The blobfish is the lily of the undersea valley: It toils not; neither does it hunt. With a body that is less dense than the surrounding water, it simply bobs about, dining on whatever morsels drift by.


Blobfish have the misfortune to share their neighborhood with the equally pejoratively named slimehead (Hoplostethus atlanticus)—now better known by its more appetizing menu appellation, orange roughy. Blobfish are inedible, but tasty orange roughy—which can live more than 100 years—have been greatly overfished, earning the species an "avoid" rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. Blobfish end up as bycatch of bottom trawlers seeking orange roughy and may be heading toward extinction. "The Australian and New Zealand deep trawling fishing fleets are some of the most active in the world," University of York marine biologist Callum Roberts told the London Daily Telegraph. "So if you are a blobfish then it is not a good place to be."

--Paul Rauber

image: Courtesy Norfanz/Kerryn Parkinson

An Electrifying Battle

_50800350_brian304 BBC correspondent Brian Milligan just completed a four-day test to see if he could cover the 484 miles between London and Edinburgh in an electric Mini E, the all-electric version of the ubiquitous Mini, relying on the U.K.’s sparse network of public charging stations. In video and print, he documents the difficulties he encountered, among them the vehicle’s limited range of 100 miles under optimal conditions (e.g., without needing to run the car’s heater), a battery-charging-time of ten hours, and worries that he’d be stranded and need to be towed to his next charging point.

Milligan’s decidedly pessimistic take on the journey so incensed EV advocate David Perliow – who last year drove an electric Tesla Roadster 772 miles in one weekend around the south of England – that Perliow took off in hot pursuit of the BBC’s Mini in another Tesla (sponsored by Tesla Motors). Because of the Tesla’s longer optimum range (245 miles) and shorter recharge time (3.5 hours), Perliow was able to follow a more direct route of just over 400 miles, stop only twice, and complete his trek in one day.

The challenge prompted the BBC to defend its reporting. The Tesla is a $109,000 exotic, they point out, while they wanted to test out a mass-market electric car (though the Mini E still exists only as a prototype). In the end, commenters and bloggers alike pointed out that a long-distance road test of an electric vehicle is interesting but not hugely informative, proof mainly that for now electric vehicles are best suited to motorists who drive less than 80 or so miles a day—which is to say, virtually all of us. 

Disclaimer: This blogger is hardly impartial. Having driven a Tesla Roadster on windy mountain roads on Northern California last year, he is still unable to wipe the silly grin off his face.

-- Reed “Jean Girard” McManus

Jan 13, 2011

Taking the "Like" Out of Lycra

ON THE ONE HAND . . . Pedal power is on the rise. The annual number of U.S. bike trips grew by 700 million between 1995 and 2009--an increase of 20 percent. That's good news for the planet, the urban environment, and our collective waistline. A 150-pound cyclist who rides four miles by bike, rather than by car, prevents the release of 15 pounds of airborne pollutants and burns 181 calories. Bonus points: That ride also eases traffic, creates more livable communities, and saves the cyclist money.

ON THE OTHER . . . Tooling around on your ultralightweight carbon-fiber frame while swathed in Lycra isn't all baby birds and wildflowers. Carbon-fiber frames can't be repaired or recycled, and because they're prone to stress cracks, bikes boasting them get ridden to the dump far sooner. And those Lycra or Coolmax cycling duds come from Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held U.S. oil company. Koch, whose other flimsy products include Dixie cups and the Cato Institute, has spent nearly $50 million funding climate-change denial.

--Dashka Slater

Jan 12, 2011

Muckraking Magazine

AC_04Aaron Isherwood reads Sierra differently than do you or I. When he saw this photo by Carol Griswold in "The Great Alaska Coal Rush" in our July/August 2009 issue, he was just as appalled as any other reader to see coal dust blowing off a freighter being loaded with Alaska coal at the port of Seward, bound for Asia or Chile. But as managing attorney of the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program, he knew that coal dust shouldn't be blowing into the clean waters of Resurrection Bay. One thing led to another, and the Club filed suit against the Alaska Railroad Corporation and Aurora Energy Services, the owners and operators, respectively, of the Seward coal-loading facility, alleging that coal dust from the operation was polluting the bay as well as covering nearby boats and neighborhoods. The coal companies tried to get the suit dismissed, but just Monday Federal Judge Timothy Burgess ruled that the case could proceed to court. (For more details, see the Environmental Law Program's page here.) Sierra's photo didn't come up in the court filings, but we're satisfied to have started the ball rolling.

--Paul Rauber

Jan 10, 2011

If Nevada = Norway, then Ohio = Turkey

(click image for larger version)

With 4.5 percent of the world's population, the United States is responsible for nearly 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. In burning fossil fuels we are surpassed only by China, but Chinese per capita emissions are only a quarter of ours. State by state, our CO2 output equals that of entire countries, as approximated above. Data are from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and are for 2007, the most recent year for which international figures are also available.

--Paul Rauber


Jan 07, 2011

Sapping Our Precious Bodily Fluids?

Ripper small Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that fluoride in drinking water may cause loss of essence. No, wait, that was General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, fulminating on “the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have ever had to face.”

Instead, the agencies concluded that too much fluoride causes spots on some kids' teeth,  a condition called fluorosis. So HHS has proposed lowering the recommended levels for fluoride in water supplies for the first time since 1962, from 0.7 to 1.2 milligrams per liter of water to 0.7 milligrams per liter. At the same time, the EPA will review whether the current maximum cutoff of 4 milligrams per liter is too high. That follows a 2006 report by the National Academy of Sciences recommending a lower maximum standard for fluoride, and a warning that a lifetime of drinking water with high levels of fluoride could raise the risk of broken bones.

Today’s predicament may follow from Americans’ obsession with having teeth as blindingly white as those of their local television newscaster. Fluoride is now found in drinking water, toothpaste, mouth rinses, tooth whiteners, and dental supplements, which increases the chance we’ll consume too much fluoride.

Sierra recently solicited eco-friendly toothpaste recommendations from a handful of dentists. Plenty of vigorous gum-flapping ensued, so be sure to read the article’s comments section.

--Reed McManus

Jan 06, 2011

How Green Is My...Wallet?

Despite the buzz about the new all-electric Nissan Leaf and plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt, American car buyers aren’t as smitten with green cars as some of us might think or hope, according to marketplace mavens Consumer Reports. In its just-released 2011 Car Brand Perception Survey, the non-profit publication found that of 7 factors that influence a shopper’s purchase decision, “the environmentally friendly/green factor continues to drop with only 28 percent of consumers finding it to be an important factor, down by 4 percentage points since last year and by 12 points since 2008.” CR attributes the drop to leaner economic times and consumers’ unwillingness to spend more for green technologies rather than, say, inroads made by screeching conservative pundits who believe environmental concerns are just too darn silly to even care about.

In November, a survey of green-car attitudes by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that  “most U.S. car owners want to cut the nation’s oil consumption and dependence on foreign oil. But few are willing to pay more for a fuel-efficient or environmentally friendly car.” While nearly 80 percent of the survey’s respondents said they would “strongly support” or “somewhat support” a national goal of reducing oil consumption (and more than 70 percent said they would support government funding for measures to reach it), an overwhelming  94 percent named a high purchase price as a deterrent to choosing an “environmentally friendly or green” vehicle.

Still, automakers are taking a longer view and bringing a fleet of fuel-efficient autos to the market. Notably, many of the new models will attain impressive mpg numbers without resorting to relatively expensive hybrid and diesel technologies, which should be music to the years of downturn-bashed buyers. The advances are so rapid that the old eyebrow-raising benchmark of 30 mpg (highway) is giving way to a slew of non-hybrid gasoline-powered cars that reach 40 mpg (highway). Among them are Chevrolet’s Cruze Eco and Ford’s Fiesta SFE. Upstart Korean automaker Hyundai claims that all its Elantra models hit the big 4-0, and the automaker will introduce its high-mpg Veloster hatchback at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday.

And those gas prices are rising. Not many experts agree with former Shell Oil President John Hofmeister’s prediction that gas prices in the United States could hit $5 per gallon by 2012, but most all agree that prices will continue to increase in the face of increasing worldwide demand for oil.

--Reed McManus

Garbage Patch Smackdown

In recent days a controversy has emerged among scientists about the size of the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," the area of floating plastic in the Pacific Ocean. The man who discovered it says it's bigger than Texas; a young professor at Oregon State University says it is a tiny fraction of that. I recently wrote about the issue in Sierra (“Message in a Bottle,” May/June 2009); here’s my take on the dustup:

The story begins with Charlie Moore, a sailor and freelance scientist, who took a voyage across the North Pacific Gyre in 1997 and found little bits of throwaway plastic everywhere he looked. Intrigued, he returned to gather samples and find the boundaries of the trash zone. Moore's investigative tenacity is equaled by his flair for a good quote, and he has appeared everywhere from the New York Times to TED to declare the "North Pacific Garbage Patch" as vast in size—the size of Texas, or maybe three times that. In fact, Moore told me  he believes the Patch to be far larger -- as much as five million square miles, or one and a half times the size of the United States.

No one publicly took issue with Moore's estimates until Tuesday, when Angelicque White, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, issued a press release asserting that the Garbage Patch is way, way smaller than Moore's estimate—in fact, less than one percent of the land area of Texas. Who's right?

The disagreement exists because Moore and White use different yardsticks. Imagine if the North Pacific Ocean were a stadium parking lot littered with trash after a football game. Moore might describe the area of trash as the entire parking lot, while White would make her measurement after it was all raked into a pile. Same amount of trash, just at different concentrations.

As for the trash talking, White may be taking some lessons from Moore's playbook. "There is a bit of parsing of the facts to obtain notoriety on her part in the same vein as those of whom she is so critical," Moore wrote to me in an email Wednesday.

White's media broadside took issue with several other public misconceptions that have sprouted about the Garbage Patch, such that it can be seen from space (it can't; often it can't even be seen from a ship's rail), that it can be cleaned up (very difficult, though some are trying), that there is now more plastic than plankton in the ocean (there isn't, but in some parts of the Garbage Patch Moore found that plastic predominated) and that the amount of plastic is doubling every decade (studies reveal contradictory evidence).

What the two researchers do agree on is that the volume of plastic waste in our oceanic "parking lot" is a shocking and awful. Even by White's concentrated estimate, the amount of the trash in the Garbage Patch would cover nearly 2,685 square miles, enough to blanket the square mileage of Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, El Paso, Corpus Cristi and Lubbock, and still have some left over for the suburbs.

And that's just the North Pacific. Since Moore's Texas-sized discovery, other trawling expeditions  have discovered areas of ocean borne plastic in the Atlantic and the Southern Pacific. Plastic also litters the ocean floor off of many coastal urban areas.

"What is worth remembering is that we should not even be having to worry about this issue, or going out to look for plastic in the first place!" said Doug Woodring, the founder of Project Kaisei, which seeks solutions to the plastic scourge, including cleanup. "The fact that we can find bits of plastic, scattered across tens of thousands of miles, in one of the most remote ecosystems on earth, is a good barometer of our disposable society and what we are doing to our planet."

--David Ferris 

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